Bill Nye Shows How Face Masks Actually Protect You–and Why You Should Wear Them

Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up having things explained to me by Bill Nye. Flight, magnets, simple machines, volcanoes: there seemed to be nothing he and his team of young lieutenants couldn't break down in a clear, humorous, and wholly non-boring manner. He didn't ask us to come to him, but met us where we already were: watching television. The zenith of the popularity of his PBS series Bill Nye the Science Guy passed a quarter-century ago, and the world has changed a bit since then. But even in the 2020s, when the spreading of scientific knowledge is no less important than it was in the 90s, Nye knows where to air his message if he wants the kids to hear it: TikTok.

Hugely popular among people not yet born during Bill Nye the Science Guy's original run, TikTok is a video-based social media platform that accommodates videos of up to 60 seconds — roughly half the length of the "Consider the Following" segments embedded within the episodes of Nye's original show.

This week Nye has revived the format on Tiktok in order to lay out the scientific principles behind something that had recently become a part of all of our lives: face masks. True to form, he explains not just with words but with objects, in this case a series of respiratory system-protecting anti-particle devices from a humble scarf to a homemade cloth face mask (employing that stalwart science-project component, a pipe cleaner) to the medical industry-standard N95.

"The reason we want you to wear a mask is to protect you," says Nye. "But the main reason we want you to wear a mask is to protect me from you, and the particles from your respiratory system from getting into my respiratory system!" As simple a point as this may sound, it has tended to get lost amid the fear and confusion of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: the conflicting information initially published about the advisability of face masks for the general public, but also the ensuing controversy over the implementation and enforcement of mask-related rules. But as Nye reminds us, this is "a matter literally of life and death — and when I use the word literally, I mean literally." As we shore up our knowledge of masks, we Millennials, who throughout our lives have learned so much from Nye, would do well to internalize that point of usage while we're at it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Vintage Science Face Masks: Conquer the Pandemic with Science, Courtesy of Maria Popova’s BrainPickings

If you don’t floss or brush your teeth, they will rot and fall out. If you don’t eat fruits and vegetables, you will get scurvy or some other horrible disease. If you don’t use protection… well, you know the rest. These are facts of life we mostly accept if we care about ourselves and others because they are beyond disputing. But the idea of wearing a cloth mask when in public during a viral pandemic spread through droplets from the nose and mouth—a practice endorsed by the CDC, the World Health Organization, scientists at Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and pretty much every other research university—has become some kind of bizarre culture war.

Maybe some walk around mask-less because they’ve internalized the idea that the coronavirus is “over,” despite the fact it’s spreading at around 50,000 new cases per day in the US, and potentially heading toward double that number. Maybe some feel it won’t affect them because they aren’t elderly or immunocompromised, never mind that viruses mutate, and that the novel (meaning “new”) coronavirus has already demonstrated that it is far less discriminating (in purely biological terms) than previously thought. (In Florida, the median age for COVID-19 has dropped from 65 to 37 years old.) Never mind that spreading the virus, even if one is not personally at high risk, compromises everybody else.

Are masks uncomfortable, especially in hot, humid weather? Do they muffle speech and make it hard to have satisfying face-to-face interactions? Well, yes. But consider your hourlong masked trip to the grocery store against the 12 or 24 or 48 or whatever hour-long shifts medical personnel are pulling in emergency departments across the country.

It really is the least we can do. And we can do it in style—masks went from scarce, with armies of homebound neighbors sewing homely stacks of them, to truly overabundant and fashionable, on the rack of every grocery, pharmacy, and convenience store. It couldn’t be easier.

If you’re concerned about looking like every other masked weirdo out there, consider these masks created by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, which she introduces with references to Rebecca Elson’s poem, “Antidotes to Fear of Death.” The science of public health may demand that we are grimly practical at the moment, but Popova wants to remind us that scientific thinking is equally invested in the experience of awe and the love of life. By wearing these masks, we can communicate to others, those who may be feeling despondent over the sea of masked faces in public places, that there is beauty in the world and we can fully experience if we get through this. Popova’s masks, printed and sold by Society6, illustrate the wonders of scientific curiosity with “wondrous centuries-old astronomical art and natural history illustrations.”

These include “treasures like the Solar System quilt Ella Harding Baker spent seven years crafting… gorgeous 18th-century illustrations from the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plantsastonishing drawings of celestial objects and phenomena…trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s stunning illustrations of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct animals; some graphically spectacular depictions of how nature works from a 19th-century French physics textbook; Ernst Haeckel’s heartbreak-fomented drawings of the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish...William Saville Kent’s pioneering artistic-scientific effort to bring the world’s awareness and awe to the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef; and art from the German marine biologist Carl Chun’s epoch-making Cephalopod Atlas — the world’s first encyclopedia of creatures of the deep.”

Society6 is donating a portion of its proceeds to World Center Kitchen, and Popova is donating to The Nature Conservancy. You can purchase your own vintage science illustration mask here and see some of these illustrations in their original context at the links further down.

Antidotes to Fear of Death

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Related Content: 

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The Phenomena of Physics Illustrated with Psychedelic Art in an Influential 19th-Century Textbook

The Brilliant Colors of the Great Barrier Revealed in a Historic Illustrated Book from 1893

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Neil Armstrong Sets Straight an Internet Truther Who Accused Him of Faking the Moon Landing (2000)

Image via Wikimedia Commons

People have been graduating from college this year who are as old as the role of internet truther. It is a venerable hobby (some might call it a cult) leading increasing numbers of people to bizarre conclusions drawn from dubious evidence proffered by spurious sources; people convinced that some wild allegation or other must be true because they saw it on the Internet, shared by people they knew and liked.

Twenty years ago, one pioneering truther wrote Mr. Neil Armstrong to put him in his place about that bugbear, the faked moon landing. The author of the letter, a Mr. Whitman, identifies himself as a “teacher of young children” charged with “a duty to tell them history as it truly happened, and not a pack of lies and deceit.” His letter shows some difficulty with grammar, and even more with critical thinking and standards of evidence.

Mr. Whitman makes his accusations with certainty and smugness. “Perhaps you are totally unaware,” he writes, “of all the evidence circulating the globe via the Internet,” which he then summarizes.

He also sends Neil Armstrong—an astronaut who either walked on the Moon or engaged in perhaps the greatest conspiracy in history—a URL, “to see for yourself how ridiculous the Moon landing claim looks 30 years on.” Whitman sent Armstrong the letter on the astronaut's 70th birthday.

Armstrong’s response, via Letters of Note, can be read in full above. Perhaps Mr. Whitman learned something from the exchange—or had a moment of clarity about his methods of investigation. One can hope. In any case, Armstrong’s unsparing reply serves as a template for responding—should someone be so inclined—to internet truthers armed with wild conspiracy theories 20 years later. These letters have been collected in A Reluctant Icon: Letters to Neil Armstrong.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Fast Can a Vaccine Be Made?: An Animated Introduction

From Ted-Ed comes a video that answers a timely question: How fast can a vaccine be made?

They write: "When a new pathogen emerges, our bodies and healthcare systems are left vulnerable. And when this pathogen causes the outbreak of a pandemic, there’s an urgent need for a vaccine to create widespread immunity with minimal loss of life. So how quickly can we develop vaccines when we need them most? Dan Kwartler describes the three phases of vaccine development." Exploratory research, clinical testing, and manufacturing.

When you're done, you can watch their related video: When is a pandemic over?

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Sir Isaac Newton’s Cure for the Plague: Powdered Toad Vomit Lozenges (1669)

Nearly 300 years after his death, Isaac Newton lives on as a byword for genius. As a polymath whose domain encompassed astronomy, physics, and mathematics, he mastered and expanded the domain of scientific knowledge available to 17th-century Europe. But if we remember him as a one-man engine of the scientific revolution, we should also bear in mind his contrasting intellectual frailties: Newton was no financial genius, as evidenced by his loss of $3 million in the South Sea Bubble of 1720, and though his inquiries into alchemy may be fun to re-enact today, we wonder now why he didn't see them as a dead end even then. And then we have his forays into medicine, one of which involves toad vomit.

"Two unpublished pages of Newton’s notes on Jan Baptist van Helmont’s 1667 book on plague, De Peste, are to be auctioned online by Bonham’s this week," reported The Guardian's Alison Flood earlier this month. "Newton had been a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, when the university closed as a precaution against the bubonic plague, which killed 100,000 people in London in 1665 and 1666. When the polymath returned to Cambridge in 1667, he began to study the work of Van Helmont," a famous Belgian physician. While some of the conclusions Newton drew from his study of Van Helmont's work remain practical today — "places infected with the plague are to be avoided," for instance — his suggested cures may not hold up to scrutiny.

In the "best" plague treatment observed by Newton, "a toad suspended by the legs in a chimney for three days, which at last vomited up earth with various insects in it, on to a dish of yellow wax, and shortly after died. Combining powdered toad with the excretions and serum made into lozenges and worn about the affected area drove away the contagion and drew out the poison." Learning how, exactly, Newton found his way to such a procedure will inspire enthusiastic collectors to bid on these papers, which remain on the Bonham's online auction block until June 10th. Newton may, as we recently noted here on Open Culture, have had some of his most groundbreaking ideas during the era of the plague, but even a mind as formidable as his by its very nature missed a few times, sometimes wildly, for every hit. Yet as the world's scientific-industrial complex races to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, we might consider what unorthodox solutions have gone overlooked in our Newton-less era.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The History of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, “The Deadliest Epidemic of All Time”: Three Free Lectures from The Great Courses

In one cascade of events after another, people are finding out the normal they once knew doesn’t exist anymore. Instead it feels as if we’re living through several past crises at once, trying to cram as much historical knowledge as we can to make sense of the moment. 2020 especially feels like an echo of 1918-1919, when the “deadliest epidemic of all time,” as The Great Courses calls the “Spanish flu,” killed millions (then the U.S. devolved into a wave of racist violence.) By offering examples of both negative and positive responses, the history, sociology, and epidemiology of the 1918 flu can guide decision-making as we prepare for a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

The Great Courses started offering free resources on the coronavirus outbreak back in March, with a brief “What You Need to Know” explainer and a free lecture course on infectious diseases. After catching up on the history of epidemics, we’ll find ourselves naturally wondering why we learned little to nothing about the Spanish flu.

The three-part lecture series here, excerpted from the larger course Mysteries of the Microscopic World (available with a Free Trial to the Great Courses Plus), begins by boldly calling this historical lacuna “A Conspiracy of Silence.” Tulane professor Bruce E. Fleury quotes Alfred Crosby, who writes in America’s Forgotten Pandemic, “the important and almost incomprehensible fact about the Spanish influenza, is that it killed millions upon millions of people in a year or less… and yet, it has never inspired awe, not in 1918 and not since.”

Epidemic diseases that have had tremendous impact in the past have become the subject of literary epics. Few epidemics have accomplished mass death “through sheer brute force” like the 1918 flu. The numbers are truly staggering, in the tens to hundreds of millions worldwide, with U.S. deaths dwarfing the combined casualties of all the country's major wars. Yet there are only a few mentions of the flu in American literature from the time. Fleury mentions some reasons for the amnesia: WWI “took center stage,” survivors were too traumatized to want to remember. We may still wonder why we should look back over 100 years ago and learn about the past when current events are so all-consuming.

“History compels us not to look away,” professor Fleury says, “lest we fail to learn the lessons paid for by our parents and our grandparents.” Faulkner, it seems, was right that the past is never past. But we need not respond in the same failed ways each time. The ability to study and learn from history gives us critical perspective in perilous, uncertain times.

Sign up here for a free trial to the Great Courses Plus.

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Watch “Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know,” and the 24-Lecture Course “An Introduction to Infectious Diseases,” Both Free from The Great Courses

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Nikola Tesla’s Grades from High School & University: A Fascinating Glimpse

In the history of science, few people got a rawer deal than Nikola Tesla. Cruelly cheated and overshadowed by Edison and Marconi (who patented the radio technology Tesla invented), the brilliant introvert didn’t stand a chance in the cutthroat business world in which his rivals moved with ease. Every biographer portrays Tesla as Edison’s perfect foil: the latter played the consummate showman and savvy patent hog, where Tesla was a reclusive mystic and, as one writer put it, “the world’s sorcerer.”

“Unlike Tesla,” writes biographer Michael Burgan, “Edison had barely gone to school: Tesla was amazed that a man with almost no formal education could invent so brilliantly.” (He would have a different opinion of Edison years later.)

Tesla began his own education, as you can learn in the survey of his high school and university grades above, with much promise, but he was forced to drop out after his third year in college when his father passed away and he was left without the means to continue. As PBS writes, Tesla showed precocious talent early on.

Passionate about mathematics and sciences, Tesla had his heart set on becoming an engineer but was “constantly oppressed” by his father’s insistence that he enter the priesthood. At age seventeen, Tesla contracted cholera and craftily exacted an important concession from his father: the older Tesla promised his son that if he survived, he would be allowed to attend the renowned Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz.

It was during his time at technical school that Tesla first devised the idea of alternating current, though he could not yet articulate a working design (he was told by a professor that the feat would be akin to building a perpetual motion machine). He solved the engineering challenge after leaving school and going to work for the Central Telephone Exchange in Budapest.

While walking through a city park with a friend, reciting Goethe’s Faust from memory, Tesla recounts in his autobiography, a passage inspired him “like a flash of lightening” and he “drew with a stick on the sand the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.” The story is one of many in which Tesla, a voracious reader and infinitely curious autodidact, draws on the extensive knowledge that he gathered through self-education.

His patent applications—Croatian scholar Danko Plevnik notes in the introduction to a series of essays on Tesla’s self-schooling—show “the erudition of a learned man, broad knowledge which by far surpassed the knowledge he could acquire through formal education only.” In his lectures, articles, and speeches, Tesla demonstrates a “familiarity with philosophy, science history and invention-related thought, methodology of science, as well as other areas of knowledge that were not included in the subjects and courses he attended through his schooling.”

Not only did he memorize entire books of poetry, but he could accurately foresee the future of technology, his keen insight honed both by his studies of the sciences and the humanities. Until fairly recently Plevnik writes, “Tesla’s education was referred to sporadically, as if it had not influenced his scientific reflection, experimenting and inventions.” That is in large part, many Tesla scholars now argue, because the best education Tesla received was the one he gave himself.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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